Tanuki no Kintama – Tanuki’s Giant Balls


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Japan Times, OnMark Productions, and Kaii Yokai Densho Database

To learn more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

Who’s got big balls? Tanuki have big balls! Anyone who has seen Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pom Poko) knows that tanukis’ nut sacks are capable of amazing magical feats—from being stretched out into giant tarpaulins to transforming into magical treasure ships. And the Japanese people aren’t shy about their love for tanukis’ giant balls; images of well-endowed tanuki can be seen all over Japan, from ubiquitous statues in from of shops and restaurants to bank commercials to anime to … pretty much anything.

Pom Poko Tanuki Balls Parachute

What Does Tanuki no Kintama Mean?

Tanuki (狸) gets mistranslated into English as all sorts of things, mostly badger or raccoon or the neologism “raccoon dog.” None of these really fit. Badgers (穴熊; anaguma) and raccoons (洗熊; araiguma) have their own Japanese names. “Raccoon dog” doesn’t really mean anything, so I personally just like sticking with the Japanese name—tanuki works better than anything else.

Now those giant balls …

Utagawa Giant Tanuki Balls

The common Japanese word for testicles is kintama (金玉), which translates literally as “golden” (金; kin) + “balls” (玉; tama). In Japan, large testicles (or a large scrotum, to be precise. It’s the nut sack, not what’s in it that matters.) are a symbol of wealth and prosperity, not sexual prowess. An alternate name, kinbukuro (金袋; money bags), makes the connection even stronger. Even more so when you consider that tanuki scrotums were once sewn into wallets and carried as literal “money bags.”

And while kintama might just be slang, in the tanuki’s case these “golden balls” have a historical precedence.

Traits of the Tanuki

Utagagwa Tanuki Balls Raincoats

As yokai, tanuki are known to have several magical powers and interesting traits. They are henge, shape-shifters, with abilities on par with and sometimes even exceeding those of kitsune (foxes), the most powerful of Japan’s magical animals. Tanuki are also famous for their belly drums (See the Belly Beating of the Tanuki) and their love of sake, food, and generally being the lazy, loafing tricksters of Japanese folklore. And their giant balls.

But they weren’t always like this. The familiar tanuki that we know today—with the prodigious belly, straw rain hat, sake bottle, and pendulous testacles—is a relatively modern invention. It actually comes from the 20th century.

Early depictions of tanuki show a realistic animal. Japanese tests are almost completely mum on tanuki for most of history. There is mention of the mujina (狢), a mythical animal associated with the tanuki in some areas, from around the 8th century.

nichibunken tanuki

Tanuki appeared in early encyclopedia starting from the 1600s, like the 1666 Kinmōzui ( 訓蒙図彙; Collected Illustrations to Instruct the Unenlightened) by Nakamura Tekisai (中村惕斎). These early works are only collections of animals, and rarely mention tanukis’ supernatural powers. One of the earliest mentions of a tanuki as a magical creature comes from the Wakan Sansai-zue (和漢三才図会; Illustrated Sino-Japanese Encyclopedia) compiled by Terajima Ryōan (寺島良安), a doctor from Osaka. The tanuki entry does not go into detail, but states that “like a kitsune (fox), an old tanuki will often transform into a yokai.”


Toriyama Sekien (鳥山石燕) included tanuki in his 1776 Gazu Hyakkiyakō (画図百鬼夜行; Illustrated Night Parade of 100 Demons), but again this tanuki looks like a regular animal.


The depiction of tanukis evolved slowly, with new stories adding new elements and transforming them slowing from the realistic animals to the cartoonish figured seen all over Japan today. The big round stomach and accompanying belly-drumming didn’t become attacked to tanuki lore until the 18th century. Several stories of tanukis’ belly-drumming appear around this time, although their famous nut sacks are still regular size. They didn’t develop elephantitis until later.

Tanuki Belly Drum

The reason for the appearance is gold.

Gold Nut Sack Pounding

Utagawa Tanuki Balls

Owaka Shigeo traced the origins of tanukis’ magical scrotums in his book about Japanese metal working, Hagane no Chishiki (鋼の知識; Knowledge about Steel). He claims the myths began from goldsmiths and metalworkers in Kanazawa prefecture. In order to turn malleable gold into delicate gold leaf, they would wrap the gold in animal skin and pound it into thin sheets. They discovered that a certain part of a certain animal was the best for the business.

In biological terms, tanuki scrotums are rather large. This is an evolutionary trait to help the randy males succeed in the fierce competition for mates. And from a metalworking perspective, tanuki scrotums were both soft and strong enough that they could take the heavy pounding and stretch out to extraordinary size. It was said that, using a tanuki scrotum, even a small piece of gold could be stretched out into an 8-tatami mat big sheet of gold leaf. (Some said a 1000-tatami mat sheet, but that seems excessive.)

Utagawa Tanuki Balls Fishing

Because of this, tanuki scrotums became known for their ability to “stretch” money and make it go further. Savvy marketers started telling tales of the magical properties of tanuki scrotums, selling them as good luck charms and wallets telling buyers that the scrotums would “expand their wealth” in the same way they stretched nuggets of gold into massive sheets.

This association between wealth and tanuki testicles continues to this day. In modern times, Tanuki are said to embody “Eight Virtues,” with their large scrotums signifying luck with money.

Ukiyo-e Artists and Tanuki Balls

Utagawa Tanuki Balls Daruma

Once the myth of tanuki and their magical, giant balls hit the cities, the imagination of Edo period artists went wild. It really was too good of an idea, and made much too interesting of a motif, so artists expanded on the “stretching scrotum” idea. Suddenly, tanuki were using their nut sacks as weapons, sail boats, swimming pools, fishing nets, umbrellas … there was no limit. All of the great artists of the ukiyo-e period got in on the fun, out doing each other with even more outrageous pictures of tanukis’ magical scrotums.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi did a particularly cool set of tanuki testicle prints that you can see here.

Utagawa Tanuki Balls Archery

It was thanks to ukiyo-e artists that the idea of tanuki and their magical, giant balls became a permanent part of Japan’s folklore and popular culture. In fact, I think it shows that the addition was more of an artistic one than a storytelling one—there are many Edo period stories about tanuki, but most of them focus on either shape-shifting or belly-drumming. I have read few tanuki tales where their scrotums play a significant element to the story.

tanuki_balls punch

All the Rest

The rest of the tanukis’ outfit—the straw hat, sake jug, and pay slip—didn’t show up until even more recently. The iconic image of the tanuki that we know and love today is really a product of the Taisho era (1912-1926), when more and more shops started using tanuki for advertising or as statues out in front of their shops.

Translator’s Note:

This article was largely sourced through the amazing website OnMark Productions. Anyone who wants to know everything about tanuki (and other aspects of folkloric and Buddhist Japan) should make that site their destination. I got most of my information from there, and only used additional sources to confirm and add a bit of flavor to the article.

Further Reading:

For more tales of tanuki, check out:

The Belly-Beating of the Tanuki

The Tanuki Song

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Writing of the Tanuki

Kori no Tatakai – The Fox-Tanuki Battles

What Does Ayakashi Mean in English?

Mizuki Shigeru Ayakashi

Translated and sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Japanese Wikipedia, Kaii Yokai Densho Database Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, and Other Sources

A sea serpent so massive it takes three days to pass by in a boat? Mysterious lights floating by the beach? A generic term for ghost stories? Ayakashi is one of the most complicated and convoluted terms in all of Japanese folklore. There is no easy answer to this simple question.

What Does Ayakashi Mean?

Usually when investigating a yokai I like to start with deciphering the kanji that make up the name. That is your first, best clue as to what the monster or phenomenon is. But ayakashi is written either in hiragana (あやかし) or katakana (アヤカシ), neither of which give any hints as to the meaning. There is an alternate and specific spelling of ayakashi that does use kanji, and we will look into that later.

In its most basic usage, ayakashi is a general term for yokai that appear above the surface of the water, and can be translated as “strange phenomenon of the sea.” That fact that this is the surface of the water is important—yokai tend to appear at boundaries, places where one thing becomes another thing. So ayakashi are yokai that haunt the boundary between the ocean and the air, instead of sea monsters swimming in the dark depths.

There are many yokai that have been called ayakashi over the years. Here are a few of them:

Ayakashi no Kaika – The Strange Lights of Ayakashi


In Nagasaki, the term ayakashi refers to strange lights that dance above the surface of the water, and are found mostly on the beaches in twilight.

These lights are different from the typical Japanese kaika (怪火; strange lights), in that the floating fires are said to contain what looks to be small children running around inside of them. This phenomenon is particularly associated with Tsushima city, Nagasaki.

Some of these ayakashi no kaika also appear out on the water, where it is said they can suddenly take on the appearance of massive rocks or landmasses that appear out of nowhere. The goal of this transformation is to panic ships, forcing them to change course and run aground or sink. But the irony is, if the brave captain sails right through the mirage, they vanish leaving everyone unharmed.

Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts


See Funa Yurei – The Boat Ghosts

In Yamaguchi and Saga prefectures ayakashi refers to funa yurei, a group of yurei who drowned at sea and now try to sink boats to increase their numbers. Funa yubrei are known to float up to the surface of the water appearing first as kaika, then transforming into figures when they reach the surface. They will demand a hishaku—a bamboo spoon—from any boat they encounter, and if given one they will swiftly fill the boat with water and drag the crew down to the depths.

A wise captain always carried a hishaku with holes drilled in it when sailing in funa yurei infested waters. Giving this spoon to the funa yurei means that they cannot sink your boat.

Several other areas in Western Japan use the term ayakashi to describe ghosts of those drowned at sea, who try to sink boats and drown swimmers either for revenge or to swell their ranks. A good example of this is the Shudan Borei.

The Woman of the Well

This story of the ayakashi appears only once, in the Edo period Kaidanshu Kaidanro no Sue (怪談老の杖; A Cane for an Old Man of Kaidan).

In Taidozaki, in the Chosei district of Chiba prefecture, a group of sailors put to show in order to re-stock their fresh water holds. As they pulled into the beach, a beautiful woman came walking by carrying a large bucket. She said the bucket was filled with fresh water that she had drawn from a nearby well, and that she would be only too happy to share it with the sailors.

Hearing this, the Captain said “There’s no well nearby. I’ve heard similar stories of thirsty sailors beguiled by a beautiful woman offering them water, never to be seen again. That woman is an ayakashi!” He ordered the boat swiftly back to the sea. As the men pulled their oars, the woman came running towards the ship in a rage, and leapt into the ocean biting the hull of the ship and holding on tight. The quick-thinking Captain beat her off with one of the oars, and the ship sailed away unharmed.



A real-life animal associated with the term ayakashi are remoras, the leach-like fish with sucker bellies that fasten themselves onto sharks and other ocean-going objects in order to get a free ride and some free food.

According to folk belief, if remoras fasten themselves to the underside of your boat, you will become stuck in the water and unable to move. In this case, remoras are called ayakashi.

Ikuchi – The Oily Sea Serpent

Sekien Ayakashi

By far the most famous depiction of ayakashi is the massive sea serpent Ikuchi. The association comes from Toriyama Seiken (鳥山石燕), and his entry for ayakashi in his Konjyaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; A Collection of 100 Ghosts from Times Past)

Toriyama wrote:

“When boats sail the seas of Western Japan, they encounter a beast so large it takes 2-3 days just to sail past. The body of the beast drips oil, but if the sailors work together to clear the boat of the oil no harm will come to them. If they don’t, they will sink.“

The Ikuchi is a legendary monster from Ibaraki prefecture, that was written about in Edo period Kaidanshu like Tsumura Soan (津村正恭)’s Tankai (譚海; Sea Ballads) and Negishi Shizumori (根岸 鎮衛)’s Mimibukuro (耳袋; Ear Bag). The Ikuchi is described as eel-like and massively long, several kilometers at least. It was not inherently dangerous, but would become tangled up with ships accidently. Crews had to work often for days to get their ship free of the Ikuchi. The most dangerous part was the oil that seeped from the monster’s body. The crew had to diligently clean up all the oil, or the ship would sink.

Why Toriyama called his depiction of the Ikuchi “ayakashi” isn’t known. Perhaps he didn’t know the monster’s true name, or perhaps he was using the general term for sea monsters instead of the specific name of Ikuchi. But for whatever reason, such is Toriyama’s influence that Ayakashi has come to describe the Ikuchi in most modern depictions.

Other Depictions

The word ayakashi has been put on almost every variation of sea monster you can think of. The 1918 book Dozoku to Densetsu (土俗と伝説; Local Customs and Legends) describes the ayakashi like this:

“The ayakashi is a mystery of the sea. They haunt boats on the open waters. Their appearance is like an enormous octopus. It will wrap itself around a boat, and only let go when gold coins are given to it.”

The 1923 book Tabi to Densetsu (旅と伝説; Travels and Legends) says this about ayakashi:

“While traveling the open sea at night, you will see lights in the distance. A ship approaches, mysteriously traveling against the wind. The ship is blazing, covered in lanterns of every shape and size, and suddenly overtakes your vessel. Or sometimes it disappears all together, and reappears next to you. The boat is filled with the souls of those who drowned at sea, and they want to add to their number. If they get close enough, they will fling an iron basket filled with fire onto your ship, killing all on board.”

Another Edo period kaidanshu offers this description:

“When the winds blow from the West, the dead travel on the waves. With lanterns hanging from the prow, you can make out the site of a woman clad in a white kimono, standing in the prow of a small ship. This is the ayakashi.”

There are many, many more. Most of the stories are slightly similar—describing either some kind of great sea monster, or a boat full of drowning victims out for revenge—but few of them are exactly the same. This is probably what cause folklorists and storytellers to throw up their hands and say “Fine! Ayakashi just means all sea weirdness. That covers everything, right?”

Not quite …

Ayakashi and the Masks of Noh

Noh Mask Reiayakashijpg

While no one agrees on exactly what kind of ocean phenomenon ayakashi is, they are all at least agreed that it is SOME kind of ocean phenomenon. Except for Noh theater.

Many of Japan’s arts have a specialized vocabulary that is used nowhere else (try going to a sushi restaurant in Japan and asking for some “purple” and you will see what I mean.) As you know (ha ha!) Noh theater uses masks. All of the masks have names, and the name for a male mask of a ghost or violent god is called ayakashi.

Noh uses a specialized kanji, 怪士 meaning strange (怪; ayaka – ) + warrior (士; shi). These masks come in variation, like the chigusa ayakashi which is fleshy and more human-like, or the shin no ayakashi with protruding eyes and bulging blood vessels. The most terrifying is the rei no ayakashi, a skeletonesque face with a white pallor and sunken eyes. The ayakashi masks were designed around the Muromachi period and where used interchangeably for many ghostly roles, but by the Edo period each mask had been assigned a specific role.

Because of the masks of Noh, and Ayakashi no Mono (怪士のもの) can refer to a ghost story of Noh, where one of the ayakashi masks are used. And that is where the confusion comes in, from using the term “ayakashi” as a general word for yokai or “ghost story.” It is … but ONLY in Noh theater.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales

ayakashis samurai horror tales

And that brings us to where most Westerners have heard the term ayakashi, in the anime Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. While this is a brilliant series, you will notice that nowhere is there a sea creature of any kind, neither monster nor boat full of lantern-bearing yurei.

That is because the series is named after the Noh usage of ayakashi, which gives it a mysterious, nostalgic feel (and is also a bit misleading, as the stories in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales come from Kabuki theater and not Noh. But that’s marketing for you … )

Translator’s Note

This started out with me answering a reader’s question on the difference between yokai, ayakashi, and mononoke. It soon became apparent that there was far too much information for a simple answer, and blossomed into this article.

And I still didn’t answer the question! Sorry! But at least you will have a better understanding of what ayakashi means!

Further Reading:

For other informative posts about yokai and such, check out:

What Does Yokai Mean in English?

How Do You Say Ghost in Japanese?

A Brief History of Yokai

Funa Yurei

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults

Kori no Tatakai – Kitsune/Tanuki Battles


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, The Fox and the Badger in Japanese Folklore, Japanese Wikipedia, and OnMarkProductions.

Kitsune (foxes) and tanuki share much in common. They are the only two animals in Japanese folklore that are naturally magical—they don’t need to live a certain number of years to manifest their powers. Their stories both come from similar source legends in China, and dogs are their bitter enemies. Like many tribes who share so much in common, they are also rivals.

And while they rarely (if ever) engage in knock-down, drag-out fights, confrontations between kitsune and tanuki do happen occasionally. Usually they are magical showdowns of shape-changing ability, in the most classic “demonstration of magical powers” –style combat. Kitsune vastly overpower tanuki in these contests, but tanuki are much better tricksters. And in these cases, the mischief of the tanuki beats the pure evil of the kitsune.

What does Kori no Tatakai mean?

Put the kanji for tanuki (狸) with the kanji for kitsune (狐) together and you get the word kori (狐狸). In ancient times, kitsune and tanuki were considered to be a single group, and the word kori was used in a association with both of them. It appears as far back as 702 CE, in Section VII of the Zokutō Ritsu (賊盗律; Laws Concerning Robbers) which warned against the practice of using smoke to force “kori” (tanuki and kitsune) out of their dens in graveyards.

(And because Japanese is an extra-confusing language, through the kanji for dog in the middle of kori and the word transforms into kokkori (狐犬狸; Fox, Dog, Tanuki) and refers to the Japanese name for a Ouija Board,)

Much simpler is the term no tatakai (の闘い) with just means “battle of.”

Danzaburō Danuki and the Tanuki of Sado Island


Most Kori no Tatakai involved Danzaburo Danuki and his defense of the tanuki kingdom on Sado Island from invasion by kitsune. Danzaburo Danuki is a legendary figure, possibly based on a real person who lived on Sado Island in the 1650s. Danzaburo (the human) is said to have brought the tanuki to Sado Island as a dealer in meats and pelts. He released several tanuki cubs that soon populated the island. Or at least that was his cover—legends grew that said that Danzaburo was not a human at all, but a powerful bakedanuki (化け狸; transforming tanuki) smuggling his tanuki clan to the island to create a tanuki paradise free from the foxes and dogs that plagued them.

There are many stories of Danzaburo Danuki on Sado Island. He is somewhat of a folk hero. In by Kyokutei Baki’s Enseki Zasshi (燕石雑志 ; ) Danzaburo was said to recover lost treasure from hidden valleys and homes abandoned to fire and war, then loaaned his wealth to the poor island fishermen. This is unusual for a tanuki figure, who deal in illusion and trickery. The money Danzaburo Danuki leant was real gold and didn’t turn into useless leaves like is so many other tanuki tales. He wasn’t entirely pure though—when the fishermen stopped paying him back he stopped loaning out.

But by far the most famous Danzaburo Danuki tales are how he defended Sado Island from the Kitsune.

Danzaburo vs Kitsune – Round 1

Danzaburo Danuki was preparing to take his boat across to Sado Island one day, when he saw a kitsune waiting on the shore. The kitsune said he was looking for a new home for his clan, and wondered if Danzaburo might give him a ride across in his boat—the kitsune could not swim and had no money for passage. Danzaburo agreed, but asked that the kitsune transform himself into a vest so that it would be lest suspicious when he arrived at the far side.

The kitsune agreed that this was a good plan, and transformed himself into a vest that Danzaburo pulled on. Pulling the oar, Danzaburo whistled to himself quietly making his way across the stretch of ocean to Sado Island. When they were about half-way across, Danzaburo calmly slipped off the vest and dropped it into the ocean, leaving the kitsune to drown.

Danzaburo vs Kitsune – Round 2

Danzaburo Danuki met a powerful kitsune near Futatsu Iwa on Sado Island. Danzaburo was not about to allow a kitsune to set foot on Sado Island, and challenged him to a duel—a show of transforming powers. Danzaburo boasted “You may be hot stuff back home but your powers are nothing compared to mine. I don’t just turn from one thing into another. I can transform myself into an entire Daimyo’s procession!”

The kitsune—confident that no mere tanuki could out-transform him—accepted the challenge and settled back to watch Danzaburo make a fool out of himself. “Go ahead,” the kitsune smirked, “show me what you can do.”

In an instant, Danzaburo had disappeared. The kitsune was startled for a moment, but he was even more surprised when a Daimyo’s procession appeared, complete with armored warriors and bearers carrying a heavy palanquin.

“Unbelievable!” He did it!” The kitsune couldn’t believe that such a magical feat and been transformed, and leapt up on top of the palanquin to test the solidness of the illusion.

Unfortunately for the kitsune, Danzaburo was a better boaster and liar than a transformer. He timed his trick perfectly to disappear right when the very real Daimyo’s procession would come along the path. The soldiers, seeing a fox leap on the palanquin and appear to attack their Lord, grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and chopped its head off with one swift blow.

More Kitsune/Taunki Battles

According to Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, the kitsune tried many times to invade Sado Island over the years, but where always beaten back by Danzaburo and his clan. That’s why to this day, there are no foxes on Sado Island—all though there are lots and lots of tanuki.


Another legendary Kitsune/Tanuki battle appeared in the kamishibai theater. Attributed to Musashi Jūnin (武蔵住人), Flying-Dragon Tanuki vs Nine-Tailed White Fox ran for the 21-installments. The story told of the villainous Nine-Tailed White Fox spiriting off the beautiful maiden Hagino, and the Flying-Dragon Tanuki’s battle to rescue her.

Translator’s Note:

This was translated for Katriel Page, who knows way more about kitsune than I do. A big thanks to Mark Schumacher and his OnMarkProductions site, which any fan of Japanese folklore should already have bookmarked.

Further Reading:

For more tanuki and kitsune tales, check out:

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Belly-Beating of the Tanuki

Tsukimono – The Possessing Thing

Tanuki Possession Mizuki Shigeru

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, The Catalpa Bow, Myths and Legends of Japan, Occult Japan, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

There are eight million gods and monsters in Japan, and more than a few of them like to ride around in human bodies from time to time. Yurei. Kappa. Tanuki. Tengu. Kitsune. Snakes. Cats. Horses. Almost anything can possess a human. But when they do, they are all known by a single name—Tsukimono, the Possessing Things.

What Does Tsukimono Mean?

Tsukimono is a straight forward term. It combines the kanji憑 (tsuki; possession) +物 (mono; thing). There is a different word for actual possession憑依 (hyoi), which is the kanji 憑 (tsuki again, but this time pronounced hyo—because Japanese is hard) + 依 (I; caused by).

Although they are collectively known as tsukimono, different types of tsukimono use –tsuki as a suffix, such as kappa-tsuki (河童憑; kappa possession), tengu-tsuki (天狗憑; tengu possession), or the most common of all, kitsune-tsuki (狐憑; fox possession).

(憑 is an odd kanji by the way. It can do double duty not only as the verb tsuku (憑く; to possess) but also as a kanji for  tanomu (憑む; to ask a favor). So in a strange way, possession means asking a favor of someone—really, really hard.)

Shinto God Possession

Kami Possession Mizuki Shigeru

Spirit possession is an ancient and ubiquitous belief in Japan. In his 1894 book Occult Japan, Percival Lowell wrote:

“The number of possessing spirits in Japan is something enormous. It is safe to say that no other nation of forty millions of people has ever produced its parallel….”

Probably the most ancient form of the phenomenon is God Possession. There have long been mediums who could voluntarily drawn the power of kami or ancestor spirits into their bodies to serve as oracles. As in many spiritual traditions, the medium goes into a trance and clears their mind so that the kami can enter. The medium is just an empty vessel that gives voice to the kami.

The kami can be singular or plural, an ancestor spirit or merger of deities. Because of the obscure nature of the kami and their relation to the sorei ancestor spirits, it can be hard to tell. As Lowell says, “In Shinto god-possession we are viewing the actual incarnation of the ancestor spirit of the race.”

However, this kind of God Possession—known alternately as kamiyadori (神宿り; kami dwelling), kamioroshi (神降ろし; kami descending), or kamigakari (神懸り; divine possession) –is different from tsukimono.

Tsukimono – Yokai and Animal Possession

Tsukimono are almost exclusively yokai or animal spirits invading human bodies. This is rarely a spontaneous event—often the yokai possesses the human as an act of revenge, for when a human kills one of the yokai’s children, or destroys it’s home, or something along that lines. Or it could be simple greed, like a fox who wants to eat a delicious treat that it normally can’t get it’s paws on. The reasons are as innumerable as the yokai themselves. But as opposed to the Shinto God Possession, it is always involuntary on the part of the possessed. No one invites a tsukimono into their body.


The effects of the possession vary widely as well. In most possessions the victim takes on the attributes of the yokai or animal. A victim of tanuki-tsuki (tanuki possession) is said to voraciously overeat until their belly swells up like a tanuki, causing death unless exorcized. Uma-tsuki (horse possession) can cause people to become ill-mannered, huffing at everything and sticking their face into their food to eat like a horse. Kappa-tsuki become overwhelmed with the need to be in water, and develop an appetite for cucumbers.

In general, the only way to free someone from a tsukimono is through an exorcist. Usually these were the wandering Shugendo priests called Yamabushi. They were the great sorcerers and exorcists of pre-modern Japan, roaming through the mountains and coming down when called to perform sacred services and spiritual battles.

Types of Tsukimono – Snakes, Foxes, and Everything Else

The types of tsukimono change depending on who you ask, and when. The great Meiji-era folklorist Yanagita Kunio split tsukimono into two distinct types, snakes (hebi-tsuki) and foxes (kitsune-tsuki).

The snake was found primarily in Shikoku, and went by various names. Hebigami (蛇神; snake god), Tobyo or Tonbogami. As you can see by the name, these snakes were not typical snakes, but where thought to be snake gods with the ability to possess humans. In many descriptions they do not even resemble snakes, but are more like great earthworms.


What Yanagita referred to as a kitsune was quite different from the usual fox. It was a small, four-legged furry creature that resembled a weasel or shrew more than anything else. The kitsune also went by regional various names, like ninko (人狐; human fox) or yako (野狐; field fox). The animal roamed over Kansai, Kanto, and Tohoku districts. Whatever the animal was called in the local vernacular, the description given was always the same; a distinctly non-foxlike animal that every called a fox.

Yanagita was quick to put the name kitsune to all 4-legged animal possessors. He linked the kitsune-tsuki to one of Japan’s other great possessing animals, the inugami (犬神; Dog God), that moved throughout Shikoku and Chugoku districts.

Very few folklorists agree with Yanagita’s fox/snake categories. Most who write on the subject have seen much, much more variety in tsukimono. Percival Lowell wrote:

“ … there are a surprising number of forms. There is, in short, possession by pretty much every kind of creature, except by other living men.”

Mizuki Shigeru agrees with Percival Lowell. In his Mujyara, series he identifies the following types of possession. It is is by no means meant to be a complete list:

• Jizo-tsuki – Possession by Jizo
• Kappa-tsuki – Kappa possession
• Gaki-tsuki – Hungry Ghost possession
• Tengu-tsuki – Tengu possession
• Shibito-tsuki – Ghost possession
• Neko-tsuki – Cat possession
• Hebi-tsuki – Snake possession
• Tanuki-tsuki – Tanuki possession
• Hannya-tsuki – Hannya possession
• Ikiryo-tsuki – Living Ghost possession
• Uma-tsuki – Horse possession
• Inu-tsuki – Dog possession
• Kitsune-tsuki – Fox possession

Kitsune-tsuki and Kitsune-tsukia – Fox Possession and Fox Users


Kitsune-tsuki is by far the most common type of tsukimono. It is also different from other tsukimono—instead of the possessed taking on fox-attributes, kitsune-tsuki feels like a bodily attack, with shortness of breath, phantom pains, speaking in strange voices, and epileptic fits. Kitsune-tsuki symptoms resembled classic demonic possession in Western culture.

Up until WWII, kitsune-tsuki in particular was treated with deadly seriousness, by both mystics and scientists. F. Hadland Davis wrote in his 1913 book Myths and Legends of Japan:

“Demonical possession is frequently said to be due o the evil influence of foxes. This form of possession is known as kitsune-tsuki. The sufferer is usually a woman of the poorer classes, one who is highly sensitive an open to believe in all manner o superstitions. The question of demoniacal possession is still and unsolved problem, and the studies of Dr. Baelz of the Imperial University of Japan, seem to point to the fact that animal possession in human beings is a very real and terrible truth after all. He remarks that a fox usually enters a woman either through the breast or between the finger-nails, and that the fox lives a separate life of its own, frequently speaking in a voice totally different from the human.”

Another huge different with kitsune-tsuki is that, instead of the possession being the will of the yokai, it could be a deliberate attack. A breed of sorcerers known as kitsune-tsukai (Fox Users) were said to have invisible kitsune at their command, and could send them to possess people at will. This could also be for any reason, from revenge to profit. A particularly devious type of extortionist kitsune-tsukai would send their kitsune to possess someone, then appear in the guise of an exorcist to drive the spirit out—for a fee, of course.


Kitsune-tsukai gain power over their familiars in what is known as the Izuna-ho, or Izuna rite. The complete ritual is laid out in the 17th century Honcho Shokkan; find a pregnant fox and feed her and tame her. When she gives birth, take special care of her cubs. When her cubs are strong enough, she will eventually come and ask you to name one as thanks. With that done, the fox you named is under your control, and will respond to the power of its name. Continue to feed the fox, and you are know a Kitsune-tsukai. You can ask it questions that it must answer, or send it to perform your nefarious deeds.

A hallmark of the kitsune-tsukai is that they were the nouveaux riches—people of poverty who suddenly gained wealth and property. There was no possible explanation for the sudden rise in status of these people other than they had a magical, invisible fox at their command.

One strange aspect of kitsune-tsukai is that—along with the dog-possession called inugami—it is thought to be hereditary. Becoming a kitsune-tsukai taints your entire line, and from that time forward invisible foxes will hang around the houses of your ancestors. You are now part of a tsukimono-tsuji, a witch clan.

Kitsune-tsukai and tsukimono-tsuji were actively discriminated against. It was a taint that lasted forever, and people would carefully check the family background of potential marriage or business partners to ensure that they had no hint of kitsune-tsukai lineage. To bind your family to a tainted family was disastrous—you and all your heirs would now carry the taint. During the Edo period in particular people were vigilant against kitsune-tsukai. Accused families would be burned out of their homes and banished.

With no surprise, kitsune-tsukai discrimination is often linked to burakumin discrimination. Many burakumin families were accused of being kitsune-tsukai, and people said that when you walked through a burakumin village you could see the invisible foxes haunted the houses, waiting for their master’s commands.

Predjudice against tsukimono-tsuji and kitsune-tsukai families lasted well into the 1960s when human rights laws were enacted forbidding discrimination against them. To this day, however, I am sure you can find a few people who would be shy to marry or do business with a known kitsune-tsukai.

Translator’s Note:

This article was done for Brandon Seifert, who does the incredibly cool comic Witch Doctor. Is there a yokai-inspired comic in Seifert’s future? I suggest you keep an eye out on your local comic shop!

I feel like I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this article—it started out as a simple explanation of tsukimono, but soon expanded into much, much more. And even this is just a glimpse; there is much more to tell about tsukimono, kitsune-tsukai, and the various other forms of possession than I can fit on this blog. Hopefully this will serve as a solid overview. Time permitting, I will do individual articles on the different types of possession in the future.

For now, anyone interested in learning more should check out The Catalpa Bow: A Study in Shamanistic Practices in Japan. The chapter on tsukimono—or Witch Animals—is available online here.

Further Reading:

For more stories of possessing yokai and snakes, check out:

Inen – The Possessing Ghost

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Snake’s Curse

Sazae Oni – The Turban Shell Demon


Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

The Sazae Oni may not look like much—just a giant shellfish with an odd set of arms. But then you read the legends, and discover that this bizarre creature is a testicle thief that has more in common with the classical succubus of the Malleus Maleficarum than traditional Japanese yokai … and it starts to get more interesting. And scarier.

What Does Sazae Oni Mean?

Sazae are a popular menu item in Japan, although almost unknown in the West. They are called Turbo cornutus, which literally means horned turban. But, they are more often called Turban Shells or Turban Snails in English, or just by the Japanese word Sazae.

The Sazae Oni’s name uses the kanji 栄螺 (Sazae; turban shell) + 鬼(Oni; Demon, Ogre). Like the Onikuma (Demon Bear), the term “oni” is used in a general sense of “demon” instead of the sense of the Japanese yokai, Oni.

What is a Sazae Oni?

The origins of the Sazae Oni are obscure, and come in two distinct different flavors. According to one legend, the Sazae Oni is a typical animal yokai, one that has lived a long time—in the case of the Sazae Oni, 30 years—and been transformed by the magic of long life into a supernatural creature. Like many of these creatures, the Sazae Oni grows to unusual size, and becomes a blend of human and animal features, gaining two powerful arms and eyes on its shell.

Toriyama Sekien Sazae-oni

Artist Toriyama Sekein used the Sazae Oni as a metaphor for the mysterious universe that we live in, a realm where all things are possible. Toriyama included the Sazae Oni in his yokai collection Gazu Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro (画図百器徒然袋; The Illustrated Bag of One Hundred Random Demons), where he wrote:

“If a sparrow becomes a clam upon entering the sea, and a field-rat can transform into a quail, then in this unfathomable universe it is no impossible thing that a turban shell might become a demon. I have seen this in something like a dream.”

Toriyama is making a reference to a Chinese proverb, that comes from the Liji (礼記; Book of Rites). It says that a sparrow may become a clam in the sea, and a field-rat may become a quail. The proverb means that even impossible things can happen in the mysterious world we live in.

These Sazae Oni are harmless creatures, who do nothing more than rise to the surface of the ocean on moonlit nights to dance on the waves. There is even some mixing with the sea dragons that rule the land beneath the waves.

And then there is the other, less esoteric origin.

Sazae Oni – The Succubus of the Sea, and the Testicle Thief

In Kishu province (modern day Wakayama and Mie prefectures), there is a legend that Sazae Oni are born from lustful women who are thrown into the ocean as punishment for their wanton ways.

Sazae Oni

In one story, a ship of pirates hugging the coast heard the cries of a woman drowning in the waves. Seeing that the woman was beautiful, the pirates decided to rescue her. Once on board, the pirates planned to rape her but found instead that the woman was willing. Over the course of the night, she had sex with every member of the crew.

The woman had her own agenda—she kept a souvenir from each of her conquests, the man’s testicles that she supposedly bit off when she was finished. Discovering that they had been robbed of the precious possessions, the men charged at the woman who revealed herself as a Sazae Oni. She offered to sell the pirates back their testicles in exchange for their plundered treasure.

In this way the Sazae Oni traded “gold” for gold, as the Japanese word for testicles is kintama (golden balls).

This story of the Sazae Oni draws a further, and interesting, correlation with the succubus. In the 1486 Witchhunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, it is said that succubus gather semen from their male lovers in order to breed. In a similar way, the Sazae Oni collects testicles, and some legends have sprang up saying that the Sazae Oni also uses the semen from the testicles in order to breed new Sazae Oni. This is a completely modern theory, however, and does not appear in old folklore studies.

There is a further legend of Sazae Oni, from the Boso peninsula in Chiba prefecture. In a story almost entirely unrelated to other instances, the Sazae Oni is said to take the form of a woman who wanders at night, staying at inns and making a meal of the innkeepers.

Translator’s Note:

This is another in my series of yokai that appear (however briefly) in my translation of Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. The Sazae Oni appears when Nonnonba buys Mizuki Shigeru an exceptionally large sazae to heat, and speculates that it might be a Sazae Oni. This plays on the young Shigeru’s imagination, as he searches for eyes on the massive shell.

Further Reading:

For other ocean-based yokai, check out:

Umibozu – The Sea Monk

Bakekujira – The Skeleton Whale

Nure Onago – The Soaked Woman

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